Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Quick Thought On Our Sinful Nature

I happened across a blog tonight that was all about religious literature and reviews of said literature. I clicked over to the author's "Belief Statement" and read this:

"I believe that mankind is hopelessly depraved and incapable of doing anything good on its own. It is this depravity that separates us from God. Our depravity judges us guilty before God, and there is nothing we can do to earn God's favor."

It seems a bit strong to me. Sure, from time to time I've dwelt on the idea that we're all born into sin, it's just that I've never spent a ton of time thinking about mankind's fallen nature. It's just always been a belief that I accept (and not a particularly difficult one to accept at that).

But this belief statement is almost offensively strong to me. It starts with a reasonable premise (people are born into sin and need Grace to recover from that) but then jumps to an unreasonable one (without Grace we are depraved). After all, God created us in His image and endowed us with His greatest gifts. Surely there must be some redeeming qualities in human nature, right? To say that we are "hopelessly depraved and incapable of doing anything good" is an indictment not of humanity alone, but also of humanity's creator.

I guess the question becomes whether there is a middle ground. Can we acknowledge our sinful nature and need for grace while simultaneously embracing human nature and seeing good qualities within us? I think the answer is - and has to be - yes. We are not perfect. That much is true. But it does not follow that we are therefore perfectly opposite of perfection. In our natural state we lack Grace, but that does not mean we are depraved. It is not an on/off switch, either we are sinful or we are saved.

And I'd take it a step further; I would say that even those who are without Grace can live as God would want. That in our human nature God has given us tools towards that life. The person without Grace isn't going to get it perfect, but then again, neither is the person who lives in Grace. But lack of perfection does not mean depravity. God takes joy in all of our lives; He gives us our lives as an amazing gift and calls us to live them to the fullest.

Last week's Gospel really struck me, and it's been with me all week. One verse really sums it all up. Mark 9:40 "For whoever is not against us is for us."

Think about that for a second, and how it turns the ol' "if you're not with us you're against us" mentality on its head. If you aren't against God, then you're for God. So long as you're living your life in a way that isn't against God, then you're as good as living in a way that is for God. And that's the red text.

To tie it all back around, it is a "if you're not with me you're against me" mentality that says lack of Grace is the same as depravity. It views an absence of Grace as a rejection of God. But Christ says otherwise, essentially: "so long as there isn't a rejection of God, then there is Grace."

We aren't perfect. We're born into sin. We need Grace to get us to Heaven and help us live our lives to the fullest. But that doesn't mean we're depraved. That doesn't mean we can't do good without embracing Christ. Because we're never alone. God has already given us our lives, and that gift is such an amazing act of Grace in itself. God wants us to have this gift regardless of how we use it. Throw in natural law and our ability to know right and wrong, and well... I'd say we're already about half way there. Not perfect, but not depraved. Just somewhere in between.

What you gonna spend your free life on?


Quinn said...

I thought that towards the end of your blog, you began to echo the daily readings from Friday, the feast day of Guardian Angels. Though we can't see them (Nicene creed- "we believe in all seen and unseen), we still believe. Furthermore, the fact that God bestowed upon each of us our own Guardian Angel shows us that though we may be born into a state of sin, we're always being looked after. In His divine wisdom, the angels can intercede on our behalf, which gives me hope.

Jeff said...

Interesting post. Clearly, you and I disagree on the whole "born into sin" thing (which is one of the most fundamental differences between Jewish and Christian theology besides the obvious, IMHO) but this is a refreshing view on the idea.

And I think we agree on rejecting the idea that people are inherently evil. Unfortunately, that notion is an unexpectedly pervasive one in our society, especially among conservatives but also among more paternalistic liberals as well. I ranted about this on my blog a little while ago while reflecting on Katrina here.

The Gospel quote you pulled is interesting, too, and I think it says a lot, especially when you consider how quickly people often are to claim that they're "under attack" from some perceived evil that probably won't affect them at all.

I guess the devil's advocate question is this - if living a good life is possible without Christ, and living a bad life is possible with Christ, what, then, is the point of Christ? Does that make the difference between Christians and non-Christians purely celestial in nature - and thus, to those of us who don't believe in an afterlife, somewhat moot?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff -

To answer the Devil's Advocate question... the "point" of Christ is two-fold. First, there's the Saving Grace. Mostly this matters for the afterlife question, but it also helps resolve the problem of evil (see Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamozov for more...). God was willing to suffer the ultimate evil (condemnation and death of an innocent) so that we could retain our free will and still have a path to Salvation.

But second, and maybe of more practical significance, Christ matters because of the good life he enables. Sure, it is possible that without Christ a person can live a good life, and that with Christ a person could live a bad life... but it's less likely. And the reason is because of the assistance of Grace. I maintain that we have a human nature that directs us towards right and wrong and that every person is born with this key tool. Following this guideline all the time would lead a person to live a good life. Of course, it's also human nature to ignore right and wrong for more immediate and base pleasures. So our nature messes us up too. Like I said - it's a balance.

A person recieves Grace when they accept Christ (or, I'd argue, live the Mosaic Covenant), which helps them follow that internal right/wrong guideline, and reject the immediate base pleasures. What's more, Christ has actually given us really specific right/wrong decisions, told us how to interact with God and others, etc. So you've not only got the internal guidelines, but external ones too. Toss in the Scripture and The Church as teaching and supportive tools, and the chance for living a good life are much, much better.

Oh, and also, I suppose I'd have to consider myself a "paternalistic liberal". However, I'd point out that I generally tend more towards laws that encourage/teach good behavior, rather than restricions that punish bad behavior.

Finally, when I'm using "good life" I mean both "morally upright" and "happy". That is, I honestly believe that honestly following Christ gives a person a more limitless joy than any other type of life.

Cherie Goodpasture of "Only Admit One" Copyright 2009. All Rights Reserved. said...

I have been discussing this quite a bit on my blog as well. The quote on man being intrinsically evil is obviously from a calvinist. It is a terrible doctrine and is just flat out un-biblical. I feel like I have come up with some good biblcal answers to thess questions. So check me out if you so desire. Above all keep seeking the TRUTH.